I have enjoyed attending SCG Open Series to do commentary quite a bit but between that and my job it's left very little time for me to actually play Magic. With the SCG Invitational fast approaching and dust accumulating on my wizard robes I felt I had to get some reps in before flying across the country for two (potentially three) days of tournament play against high-level opposition. The SCG Open Series in Los Angeles (a scant 90-minute drive from my place) last weekend provided a great opportunity to battle against reasonable opponents so I decided to go. I played the two decks (B/R Zombies in Standard and Burn in Legacy) that I intend to play in the SCG Invitational.
While I haven't been playing much Magic (the last tournament that I made any effort for was the SCG Invitational in Baltimore) doing commentary acts like something of a substitute. Clearly it would be better to be playing the games myself but getting to observe good players the way they build their decks and their lines of play gave me some frame of reference for how a lot of the key matchups play out at least in Standard. I was especially interested in watching Zombies in action since I played it in Baltimore and plan on playing it in Atlanta as well.
As usual I held some deep reservations about the way the "stock" lists were being built. Now there's plenty of variation in the removal suites from deck to deck but the threat list (assuming we aren't talking about Birthing Pod variations) is roughly the same. While I don't deny the success these decks have had on the Open Series circuit as of late I think part of that is strength in numbers—plenty of people are playing the same list and the list is at least reasonable so some of them are bound to end up at the top of the standings.
That brings me to a lesson that I think is an important one for tournament players to learn: a deck doing well even winning a big tournament doesn't mean development on the deck is complete that the list can't be improved or that shifts in the metagame can't undo most of what the deck was trying to accomplish. There have been plenty of times where the successful deck was actually correctly built but I would never use "because it won the last big tournament" as a credible defense for how a deck was constructed.
As a personal example I made Top 8 (and maybe even won I can't remember) a PTQ back in the day with Scald in my sideboard when for the purposes of the metagame it was basically a strictly worse Pyrostatic Pillar. Why was Scald in my sideboard? Because I forgot Pillar existed. I know some people probably showed up to their PTQs the following week with Scalds in their sideboard and for that they only have themselves to blame.
B/R Zombies in Standard
With that out of the way I'd like to talk about the places where my build of Zombies for SCG Standard Open: Los Angeles deviated from the generally played lists along with the reasons.
4 Walking Corpse / 0 Blood Artist
This is the big one obviously and the one that requires the most explanation. In general when I'm building aggressive decks I tend to want a deck that
- Doesn't mulligan often.
- Presents a reasonably consistent curve.
- Can capitalize on opponents who mulligan stumble with mana etc.
- Presents meaningful versatile disruptions.
Blood Artist is spectacular when your draw is awesome—you've got Gravecrawler and Falkenrath Aristocrat going and your opponent can't kill anything or you've got some Geralf's Messengers that are ruining them in combat or something like that. The thing is that you're often winning those games anyway if you replace Blood Artist with Walking Corpse. The times where Blood Artist is bad (say you don't have a one drop or it gets killed or you're kind of flooding out) Walking Corpse is often substantially better and those are the games that you need help winning.
Also the current metagame is especially hostile to one-toughness creatures (even more so than a few months ago with Infect becoming a thing) and Blood Artist gets a lot of splash damage because of this. You'll notice my list is as close to Gut Shot proof as you can reasonably get with only Fume Spitter and Gravecrawler (both of whom aren't awesome to use spot removal on) as targets.
You do lose some points in the Birthing Pod matchup building it this way as Blood Artist is quite good against them even if your draw isn't great but I think you improve a lot of your other matchups more significantly with Walking Corpse and also generally help your weaker draws or the draws where your opponent is punching back. It makes your Gravecrawler rebuys a lot more reliable which is an issue with the stock lists in my opinion. Also it plays better with discard as "Gravecrawler Walking Corpse attack your hand" is quite a bit better than "Gravecrawler Blood Artist attack your hand" which we'll get into now.
4 Despise Maindeck
Ask any Zombie player what maindeck card they fear the most and they'll probably give you an answer like "Blade Splicer" or "Thragtusk." Elvish Visionary Snapcaster Mage Restoration Angel and Huntmaster of the Fells are no day at the beach either. All these cards have something in common: they are all creatures against which one-for-one removal is bad for whatever reason. Blade Splicer and Thragtusk are extremely hard to beat once they're in play even if your board is reasonable and the other listed cards strongly correlate to losing as well.
Despise gives you a shot even if your opponent draws the cards in question and given the current Standard metagame it's rarely dead (even the control decks have some number of Titans and planeswalkers as my round 8 match on camera demonstrated). Over the course of the day I tagged a huge number of Wurmcoil Engines Titans Splicers Gideon Juras and other cards that would have instantly killed me had they entered play and no removal spell I could have added in its place would have done that. I can understand not wanting to play them main I suppose but if you don't have a bunch of these in your sideboard you're a lunatic.
I really wanted to play Geth's Verdict to handle Geist of Saint Traft Titans and Restoration Angel. Between that and Distress Fume Spitter Despise and Pillar of Flame I felt the deck was too taxed on early colored mana requirements to afford even one Cavern. The fact that Mana Leak isn't a huge metagame player anymore and is generally boarded out against you anyway made me feel like Cavern wasn't something I really needed.
This was my concession to the Zombies mirror since Messenger and Gravecrawler dwarf the other cards by such a huge margin. I didn't play against the mirror all day long so Pillar kind of stunk but it wasn't really that much worse than whatever other removal spell I would have had in that spot.
1 Mortarpod / 1 Cemetery Reaper
A couple of misers to fill out the rest of the list. They both have some things in common that I like in one-ofs. The first one is a lot better than the second copy and beyond they have pretty huge upside and it's tough for them to be horrible assuming you have the mana to cast them. They are also hedges against flooding while not only being good when you have infinite mana. The Reaper was sweet all day and I would love to add a second one if the mana could handle it (which I don't think it can; it would require a 23rd land I don't want to play otherwise in my opinion).
Too much mana too fragile loses a lot of its punch without Blood Artist and would require more lands and Cavern of Souls that I don't want. Aristocrat is a totally reasonable card but given the other stuff going on in my list I didn't think it belonged.
Since the removal suite is pretty homogenous maindeck I wanted to have a nice spread of removal in the board since different decks require different types of cards. Instant speed pinpoint removal for Infect Arc Trail for the mirror and so on. Vampire Nighthawk was there for decks that are soft to flyers (Naya Pod and the like) and the mirror and the High Priests were for creature decks that are light on removal. Dismember should have been Go for the Throat to give me more action against Titans and I'll almost certainly make that swap for Atlanta.
Distress did excellent work in the control and ramp matchups especially when combined with Despise. Torpor Orb was supposed to be a random miser for Pod Ramp and Splicer/Angel builds of Delver but it sort of sucked and plays poorly with Messenger. It should have probably been another Distress or something.
SCG Standard Open: Los Angeles
I went 7-2 losing in the second round by playing poorly against Benjamin Brueseke and his Delver list and getting crushed in two quick games in the last round of the Swiss (playing for Top 8) by Brian Eaton playing Miracle Ramp. Along the way I beat several ramp decks Delver Naya Pod W/R Humans and Esper Control (with the last two happening on camera in rounds 1 and 8).
The deck played out very solidly for the most part though like I said I could have really used Go for the Throat against all the Primeval and Frost Titan beatdowns I took over the course of the day. I suspect I'll keep Pillar in since Zombies is still a huge part of the metagame. But it's on the short list since it underperformed and the red cards have to be judged more harshly because you often don't have red mana.
More importantly the underlying themes of the deck felt correct. There was no time I felt remorse for having cut Blood Artist and Walking Corpse for all of its goofiness was getting a lot of quality work done. I think I'll be playing something very close to this list in Atlanta.
Burn in Legacy
I played U/R Delver at the GPs in Indianapolis and Atlanta relatively recently to horrific failure. I nearly sold my Volcanic Islands to SCG to prevent myself from getting tricked into playing that deck again. I hate Brainstorm and Ponder in decks that don't have any powerful cards to find and I hate randomly losing to Wasteland roughly one out of every eight games so I'm pretty opposed to playing that deck ever again. I committed myself to playing Burn in Atlanta months ago so the only issue was how much to change from my Baltimore list.
Because of nostalgia and card availability issues the Legacy metagame moves slowly but it certainly moves. Show and Tell now makes up an overwhelming amount of the combo metagame be it with Sneak Attack Hive Mind or something else. Given that these decks require an extremely fast clock to beat if you present no disruption the Burn deck has to be built with this in mind. For the first time in a long time I moved Searing Blaze back to the sideboard and Flame Rift back into the starting 60.
In Baltimore I tried a fancy sideboard plan of cutting my creatures for some mixture of Relic of Progenitus Cursed Scroll and other utility for matchups like Maverick and Esper Stoneblade. It worked reasonably well but it required a ton of sideboard space and does nothing to fight Counterbalance. Counterbalance is a pretty rough matchup (unlike Blade and Maverick which I would be happy to play against all day long) so I wanted something specific to fight that as well.
Ensnaring Bridge is a card I generally dislike but I feel like it's a pretty good call right now. It does a lot of work fighting Emrakul RUG and other random decks. (For example Basil Nabi's U/W Tempo deck that finished in the Top 32 was drawing very slim to a resolved Ensnaring Bridge.) As a bonus feature it's often good when Sulfuric Vortex is bad making that swap pretty easy to make.
Vexing Shusher is my Counterbalance card though it also does good work against RUG Merfolk and other Daze / Spell Pierce decks. Mindbreak Trap was something of a flex slot that I decided upon because Los Angeles has a pretty serious Storm contingent (at last year's SCG Legacy Open in LA my two losses came to Belcher in the Swiss and Storm in the Top 8) and nothing else seemed like a better use of those slots.
SCG Legacy Open: Los Angeles
As usual Legacy impressed with its huge range of decks. Over the day I played against Show and Tell RUG and Counterbalance twice along with U/R Delver Maverick U/W Tempo and Esper Stoneblade. Both of my losses came against Counterbalance (Joe Lossett in the Swiss and Michael Hetrick in the Top 4) with my loss to Joe being especially lopsided. The match with Hetrick was extremely tight and I'm nearly positive game 1 got away from me somehow; I wish it had been on camera so I could go over it but unfortunately it wasn't
My match against Ross Merriam (he mulliganed to five cards game 1 and crushed me then I barely pulled out two squeakers after board) implies the Maverick matchup is not as good as I remember it being meaning I might want something in the board beyond Searing Blaze. I personally like Mogg Fanatic as it also does good work against Dredge but Chapin's suggestion of Flamebreak isn't bad either.
As far as playing the deck goes the easiest way for me to describe it is like a boxing match. Sometimes your plan has to be to overwhelm them as fast as possible (combo mostly) sometimes you need to bob and weave while trying to pepper them with your own shots (Daze / Spell Pierce tempo decks) and sometimes you need to let them punch themselves out before you start doing anything aggressive yourself (Goblins Elves etc.). These concepts can be rather fluid and in some matchups (like Maverick) you are jumping around between all three schools of thought depending on the quality of your hand and the type of pressure you are under. Getting a good grasp of this stuff is the foundation for being a fundamentally sound Burn player and you can really only get there by logging the hours.
By far the hardest thing to get good at is playing against the Daze / Spell Pierce attacking decks like RUG and Merfolk. Your mission has to be to try to turn every soft counter into a mulligan or to at least ensure that a resolved counter comes at some high opportunity cost to your opponent (because the mana or the land drop is important somehow). If you just play into their curve of counters you will almost certainly lose. Also because inevitability isn't on your side you also need to close out the game fairly quickly once you're past the point about caring about Pierce and Daze. So you need to position yourself to manage the board for the first few turns and then quickly shift into burnout mode once you identify your window. This isn't easy and again can only be learned by playing a lot of games.
If you watched me play on camera at all this weekend you know that I was taking my time with my decisions. This wasn't for dramatic effect or to take time for the sake of taking time but rather because the thought process is actually quite complicated even for someone who has played the deck as much as I have. You don't have any margin for error because the deck doesn't have the raw power to overcome mistakes so to squeeze out every win you can takes timing precision and patience. This is the case with nearly every Legacy deck but given Burn's stigma in a lot of people's mind I thought it worth noting.
The SCG Invitational in Atlanta
I will be there happily playing decks very similar to the ones I played in Los Angeles a week prior. I know these aren't conventional choices or lists but I would rather be confident in my own decisions than feign confidence in someone else's. I'm not usually too excited to play in tournaments anymore but I am chomping at the bit for this coming weekend. See you there.